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William Blake made his living as an engraver and painter. He was neglected as a poet for many years. It is difficult to categorize his poetry partly because of the connection to his engravings. He was a Christian visionary and prophet but not enamored of the church even though the Bible was a lifelong source of inspiration. His art is far more encompassing than just the poetry he wrote. One critic proclaimed him, "far and away the greatest artist Britain has produced."

Contemporary Observation on William Blake (circa 1830):

 “He was energy itself and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the idea. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter; and the high, gloomy buildings between which from his study window, a glimpse of the Thames and the Surrey shore, assumed a kind of grandeur of the man dwelling near them. . . .He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straightforward and his wants few. . . . If asked whether I ever knew among intellectuals, a happy man, Blake would be the only one who would immediately occur to me.” –Samuel Palmer

 

Little Fly,
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live
Or if I die.

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

 

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

Comment:
The question in The Tyger, "Did he who made the lamb make thee" is a question about the persistant problem of evil. The symbolism is not arbitrary: the tiger is fierce, predatory, beautiful, yet his creation shows potentialities in the Creator quite different from those shown in creation of the lamb. This is a powerful poem that shows the scope and depth of Blake's spiritual insight.

 

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice? 
    Little lamb, who made thee? 
    Dost thou know who made thee?    
Little lamb, I'll tell thee;
    Little lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name. 
    Little lamb, God bless thee! 
    Little lamb, God bless thee!

 

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I water'd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with my smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veil'd the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.

 

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briers my joys and desires.

Now the wheat is in the ear, and the rose is on the brere,

And blue-caps so divinely blue, with poppies of bright scarlet hue,

Maiden, at the close o’ eve, wilt thou, dear, thy’ cottage leave,

And walk with one that loves thee?

 

When the even’s tiny tears bead upon the grassy spears,

And the spiker’s lace is wet with its pinhead blebs of dew,

Wilt thou lay thy work aside and walk by brook- lets dim descried,

Where I delight to love thee?

 

While thy footfall lightly press’d tramples by the sky-lark’s nest

And the cockle’s streaky eyes mark the snug place where it lies,

Mary, put thy work away, and walk at dewy close o’day

With me to kiss and love thee

.

There’s something in the time so sweet, when lovers in the evening meet,

The air so still, the sky so mild, like slumbers of the cradled child,

The moon looks over fields of love, among the ivy Sleeps the dove;

To see thee is to love thee.

A Memorable Fancy, II

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, &so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception, but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

Then I asked: “does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?”

He replied, “All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this form perswasion removed mountains: but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.”. . . . .

The Voice of the Devil

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:

  1. That Man has two real existing principles, Viz: A Body & a Soul.
  2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
  3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True:

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
  2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

Quoted in “William Blake: An Introduction”, Edited by Anne Malcolmson, 1967


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